VFTM: Speaking of education …


View From the Middle is Editor Brendan Cox’s semi-regular news column. It contains pertinent state and national news in additional to local news, the occasional glimpse into the reporting process, and a smidgen of moderate opinion.

A $1.7 million infusion of federal money could help restore teaching positions eliminated from Naugatuck schools over the last year.

The Region 16 school system will receive a smaller piece—just less than $550,000—of the $110 million the state was granted as part of a federal jobs bill designed to save or create teaching jobs across the U.S. in the 2010-11 school year.

President Barack Obama signed the $10 billion Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act into law this month, and the state Department of Education announced the estimated, town-by-town allocations late last week.

But attending the announcement of funding are logistical challenges and concerns that the one-time federal award would be applied to recurring expenses like teachers’ salaries and benefits.

“One logistical concern that I would have is we’re already planned for the school year that starts [Aug. 27] based on the existing resources that we had,” Naugatuck Mayor Robert Mezzo said Tuesday. “Certainly, anytime you have the opportunity to bring employees back that were let go for budgetary reasons, it’s something we’d strongly consider; but we also have made schedules, factored class sizes, and assigned various subject matter to existing staff. I think the Board of Education will need to analyze what can be added at this point.”

Indeed, I can attest that school administrators were redlining in high gear this week as they preempted the first day of school Friday. Repeated attempts to reach administrators for this column and an article on the new consolidated middle school were met with apologetic explanations that folks at City Hill Middle School and Tuttle House were on the other line, in a meeting, or simply too busy to field my questions (look for that story next week).

Not that I blame them; I simply mean to point out that if administrators are too busy to answer layman questions for 15 minutes, they can’t reasonably be expected to accommodate an over-late announcement of new federal funding.

At any rate, if the Naugatuck or Region 16 school districts decide to take their time recalling laid off teachers,  restoring positions cut through attrition or early retirements or adding new positions, they would not be alone.

In fact, the New York Times reported this week, “some of the nation’s biggest school districts are balking at using their share of the money to hire teachers right away,” as they fret about looming deficits and potential layoffs in the 2011-12 academic year. Those districts include Los Angeles, Pomona, Calif. and Clark County in Las Vegas.

The Connecticut Mirror reported that such is also the case in Hartford and Hamden, Conn.

The federal law requires schools to distribute money for the current year but allows districts to spend it as late as September 2012.

“Depending on what our revenue looks like in the coming months, there’s contractual increases we have to prepare for in the 2011-12 budget,” Mezzo said. “So we need to be cautious not to overextend our resources and be forced to consider reductions in force the following year.”

Plus, he said, spending one-time grant revenues on operating expenses could dig the borough into a hole only a growing local tax base could pull it out of.

“The federal government has created revenue streams that will not be there, barring additional legislation, in future years” he said. “It’s kind of called the ‘cliff scenario,’ where the government has provided us assistance on the local level to get through these difficult times. What we don’t know is when the economy will rebound to a point where we start to achieve increases in local revenue. I think the plan for the federal government is, ‘we’re going to tide you over for a few years until the economy recovers.’”

Mezzo said he hadn’t discussed the funding in any detail with fellow school board members and pointed out the borough is “always appreciative” of federal or state aid, regardless of the challenges that might be faced in its distribution.

News of Connecticut’s $110 million piece of the federal money came on the heels of last month’s news that the state had been eliminated from the running for federal cash in the second round of Race to the Top, President Obama’s signature school reform initiative.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education announced awards through that program to nine states and the District of Columbia. Among those states were Connecticut neighbors New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Tennessee and Delaware won awards in an earlier round of the competition, in which Connecticut also failed to make the cut.

Dan Malloy, Democratic nominee for governor, called the announcement “a reminder that Connecticut has shown a complete inability to compete against other states—including its immediate regional competitors—for federal funding” in a press release.

Unable to compete, perhaps; but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed into state law a sweeping education reform bill in late May. The obligations contained in that bill—including stringent new high school graduation requirements, the potential effects of which Citizen’s News reported in its July 30 and Aug. 13 editions—will take effect in 2014.

Connecticut’s application for the second round of Race to the Top money scored 379 points of a possible 500—34 points better than its first-round application in March—but retained the 25th-place ranking it held before the new bill was signed into law.

We’ll have to wait until the next round of the Race to the Top competition to see if Connecticut will find success in its next bid for education reform cash. In the meantime, we will keep an eye on how local administrators decide to peg out the $1.71 million and $548,000 awards they are slated to receive to save or create jobs in education.